“Sometimes when you live with people, you know them better than you care to.”
What’s odd is how this movie isn’t strange at all. Love Is Strange is a brief chapter ripped out of a personal diary. It’s the entry after a major event and before another, showing us real, mundane insight into the daily occurrences between two men in love. Subtlety is a word that gets thrown around far too often in film criticism, and I’m just as guilty of the charge, but that’s exactly what this movie is. Next to nothing important ever happens besides a few events that keep the story going. But I was never bored. I’m not an openly gay man past senior citizen status, yet I never felt distanced, not once kept from understanding and empathizing with the lead characters. Their love may be deemed “strange” by some parts of society, but it’s also genuine, time-tested, and above all honest.
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been together for 39 years. Ben no longer works and collects money from his pension. George teaches music at a Christian school and gives private lessons on the side. We’re never told why they whimsically get hitched after nearly four decades of courtship, because the answer to that question isn’t important in the scope of the story. Following their honeymoon, George gets laid off for marrying despite the school knowing his sexual orientation during his entire employment. They’re forced to sell their cherished apartment, get screwed over by New York’s scamming real estate system, and have to live apart with relatives/friends for a short while. That’s as dramatic as the first two-thirds of the movie gets. Like I said, for the most part they don’t face gigantic problems with painful consequences. If anything the film conveys how love, strangely, changes our identity. We see two men grapple with a life and versions of themselves that they haven’t had to face since they were young.
Love Is Strange never struggles with romance. It’s fun to see two people, two humans, so intuitively connected through mind, body, and spirit. The strain isn’t between the two characters’ relationship. It’s with the surrounding story, which honestly goes unfulfilled and can be incredibly superfluous. We don’t need more than Ben and George. They’re interesting enough. But writer/director Ira Sachs throws in so much to expand the story world, and the results are unimpressive. Ben stays with his nephew, his wife, and their angsty teen son Joey. Most of his day is spent on the roof painting or unknowingly bugging the family. Meanwhile George lives with two cops from their former building who also happen to be gay. Their apartment is a madcap frat house with music thumping and bottle tops clanking. Why can’t Ben and George, two seasoned lovers, be together? Why do they purposefully spend so much time apart when no divide has interjected into their new marriage? Sachs has written two detailed lead parts with no personal direction or growth. Ben and George are as grand as a wedding cake, but Sachs focused so much energy on layering the tower that he forgot the icing, the flavor, the necessary panache.
With all of the film’s flaws, Lithgow and Molina deserve high praise. Never once do you question their performances. These are two homosexual men who love each other. Period. They don’t pride themselves in their orientation. One isn’t relinquished to the flamboyant feminine role while the other plays the brawny male as so often is the case. Sachs, an openly gay man himself, knows what’s true and what isn’t, and shows us two people who don’t define themselves by who they love but by how they love. It’s almost beautifully pedestrian in its portrait of relational synchronicity. While it misses the adoration it seeks, Love Is Strange survives off of its unique, informed voice in dramatic romance storytelling and the help of its outstanding, heartbreaking leads.
“Your love, your dedication, your commitment to each other are an example to be followed.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5